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Limited Scope Retainer

Limited scope retainers have been recognized as one way of increasing access to justice. Such arrangements offer clients a cost-effective way to obtain legal representation when they do not qualify for legal aid, cannot afford legal representation for their entire matter, or might otherwise choose to represent themselves.

This resource defines limited scope retainers, highlights some common pitfalls, outlines lawyers’ and paralegals’ professional obligations, provides practice tips for managing risk, and directs lawyers and paralegals to other supports and resources.


A limited scope retainer is a retainer in which a lawyer or paralegal, by agreement with the client, provides legal services for part, but not all, of the client’s legal matter. For example, a client may retain a lawyer or paralegal to perform one of the following discrete legal tasks: legal research, legal advice, document preparation, legal coaching, or representation at a specific stage of a matter (e.g., mediation, motion, or case conference). This is commonly referred to as unbundling legal services or discrete task representation.

Common Pitfalls

Lawyers and paralegals should be mindful of the following common pitfalls associated with providing unbundled legal services:

  • Failing to check for conflicts of interest.
  • Failing to conduct a competent investigation of the facts and issues in the client’s matter.
  • Accepting limited services that are unreasonable or inappropriate for the client or client’s legal matter.
  • Failing to clearly outline what tasks the lawyer or paralegal will be responsible for, and to ensure the client understands the limits of the services provided and/or the consequences or risks associated with those limits.
  • Providing additional services outside the scope of the retainer without amending the existing retainer or executing a new retainer.

Professional Obligations and Practice Tips

Lawyers and paralegals must understand their professional responsibilities under the Rules of Professional Conduct (“Rules”), the Paralegal Rules of Conduct (“Paralegal Rules”), the Paralegal Professional Conduct Guidelines (“Paralegal Guidelines”), and By-Laws made under the Law Society Act to avoid common pitfalls in delivering unbundled legal services. The Law Society of Ontario has prepared the following list of professional obligations and practice tips to assist. Unless otherwise noted, the professional obligations lawyers and paralegals owe to limited scope clients are the same as those owed to any other client.

Additional Supports and Resources

Lawyers and paralegals with further questions about their professional obligations related to limited scope retainers should consider contacting the Law Society’s Practice Management Helpline.

Lawyers and paralegals may also wish to review LawPRO®’s Limited Scope Representation Resources.

Last Updated: November 26, 2020

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